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A Prison Evangelist Answers the Bishops

If the bishops truly wish to address crime they need to stop preaching generic values and start preaching the totality of Catholic morality.

Russell L. Ford 

Homiletic & Pastoral Review – September 2001

“As Catholic bishops, our response to crime in the United States is a moral test for our nation and a challenge for our church” [sic]. This is the opening sentence to a new document on criminal justice called Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) in November 2000. What follows is a reflective response to that document.

Responsibility is a fascinating mixture of brilliance, innovation, paradoxes, fantasy, and what could perhaps be classified as fecklessness. This essay will address our bishops’ thoughts on the “complex” causes of crime, the victims of crime, the criminal justice system itself and my own reflections on these topics.

Since the majority of this essay is opinion, it would be proper now to state my bona fides. What I am not is a criminologist, lawyer, judge, police officer, criminal psychologist, or sociologist. I am a prisoner of fourteen years in an Alabama prison. After my conversion to Catholicism thirteen years ago, I was urged by our Catholic chaplain to begin evangelizing my fellow prisoners. The work we began thirteen years ago has expanded into active evangelistic apostolates in seven of Alabama’s twelve medium and maximum security institutions, led by convict converts. Several hundred conversions are accounted for from these apostolates. I have had the privilege of playing a direct role in the conversions of more than one hundred-fifty souls, and I am honored to be godfather to sixty of them.

We who lead these apostolates have had the thrill of seeing how Catholicism’s acceptance in child-like faith changes lives and lowers recidivism. Our bishops must view crime from the top down, the outside looking in. It is our privilege to view it from the bottom up, the inside looking out. Only a convict is in touch with every aspect of criminal justice — from crime and victim to indictment and trial, to sentencing and actually serving the time. Therefore, a convict is uniquely qualified to comment on Responsibility.

I reject the labels of liberal and conservative. Instead, I am a Catholic realist, facing reality in a place where failure to accept reality is potentially lethal. Our bishops espouse theories based on consultations. I will offer a response based on hard lived reality.

There are four principal points of focus in Responsibility: the rights and dignity of victims, the rights and responsibility of communities, the rights and dignity of prisoners, and a call for criminal justice reform that better serves victims, rehabilitates criminals, and builds the community. Let’s first address the bishops’ thoughts on victims.

The bishops tell us that “African Americans and Hispanic Americans have been victimized at far higher rates than others. For example, in 1990, the murder rate for young black men was 140 victims per 100,000 — seven times the rate for young white men.”

This is the first mention of race in Responsibility, but a great deal of ink was devoted to the topic. They never miss a chance to imply racism when discussing victims or incarceration rates. Whoever the bishops’ researchers were apparently conveniently left out a lot of statistics for their review. To dwell on alleged racism serves only to increase racial tensions needlessly. The simple fact is, the disproportionate rate of minority victims and minority prisoners is due to the statistically proven fact that minority victims are preyed upon by minority offenders, and minority offenders commit far more crimes than whites. The bishops would do well to leave the paper tiger of racism alone.

However, the bishops do have some very good thoughts regarding victims. The bishops state that for victims “[t]o be excluded from proceedings against their offenders, to be ignored by friends and family, or to be neglected by the community of faith because their deep pain is unsettling only serves to further isolate victims and denies their dignity.” The bishops go on to call for making counseling available for victims, which is no doubt especially important for the survivors of rape and murder. Indeed, the effects of violent crime can be so devastating that the absence of competent counseling could allow the survivors’ pain to fester until they are as embittered and hate-filled as the victimizers who cased the pain. Furthermore, counseling for victims should be provided more by the Church than by the state, and for three very important reasons: (1) Jesus taught us to visit the sick (Matt. 25:36,40; (2) the state would provide counseling that contains only non-judgmental generic values, whereas the Church can offer an objective set of moral norms, and (3) taking the leadership role in providing counseling gives us a whole new mission field for evangelization.

The bishops also propose a component of restorative justice that I have seen first hand and can attest to its value. This component is called victim-offender mediation. “With the help of a skilled facilitator, these programs offer victims or their families the opportunity to share the harm done to their lives and property, and provide a place for the offender to face the victim, admit responsibility, acknowledge harm and agree to restitution.” Such a program as this is beneficial in numerous ways, and the Church should lead the way in its advocacy and implementation. One benefit for the victim is that it gives him or her the opportunity to release anger, communicate to the offender the effects of his actions, and begin the process of healing and forgiveness. (Healing can never be complete until the victim learns to forgive.)

An equally beneficial element of victim-offender mediation is for the offender himself. Nearly all violent crimes are committed because the offender cannot or will not view the victim as another human person, but rather as a “thing” to be used or abused as he sees fit. Putting offenders face-to-face with their victims is often a shockingly harsh reality check for the offender, forcing him to see the pain he has caused.

Finally, victim-offender mediation has a potential to treat all the victims of violent crime. Every violent crime has at least four victims: the actual victim, the victim’s family, the offender’s family, and the offender himself. Yes, we must learn to see that the offender and his family are also victims. God gave us all intellect and free will, and those faculties of the soul were intended to be used to know, love, and serve God. When intellect and freewill are abused sin is committed. There is nothing a man can do to victimize himself more than to commit a mortal sin. Therefore, his own healing process (spiritually) is aided by victim-offender mediation. Furthermore, the healing of the offender aids in the healing of his family.

The bishops also call for the state to allow greater participation of victims in the process of sending offenders to prison. Victims, the bishops rightly claim, want to be heard by the judges and juries charged with the responsibility of punishing offenders. This desire of victims and their families is most understandable, but while it would allow emotional venting, it could be counter productive in the long run.

Constitutionally, anyone charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty. Because of this, the accused is guaranteed a fair and impartial trial by an impartial judge and jury. No matter how we may feel about giving such consideration to someone who is obviously guilty, these are rights we must protect for those cases that are less obvious. This constitutionally guaranteed process works in two phases: the trial phase and the sentencing phase. When a victim or victim’s family is permitted to voice concerns or describe pain during either phase, the accused can justifiably claim on appeal that the judge and jury were prejudiced against him so that instead of receiving justice he became the victim of social vengeance. If he wins such an appeal (and he could in many jurisdictions), rather than serving the time the crime deserves he is released back into society. Therefore, despite how good participation might make victims feel, this idea does more harm than good. The bishops should withdraw this suggestion for greater good.

Responsibility tries to address what the bishops believe are the root causes of crime. They identify the obvious, yet at times appear to be vague about root causes. The bishops tell us that they “cannot ignore the underlying cultural values that help to create a violent environment: a denial of right and wrong, education that ignores fundamental values, an abandonment of personal responsibility, an excessive and selfish focus on our individual desires, a diminishing sense of obligation to our children and neighbors, and a misplaced emphasis on acquiring wealth and possessions.” This quote leaves the reader wondering what is meant by two of the elements the bishops cite.

What is meant by “a denial of right and wrong”? Whose denial? The state’s? Teachers? Parents? Where did this denial originate? This is a vague statement the bishops need to define.

If the bishops are blaming the denial of right and wrong on offenders, their point can be well taken. During the fourteen years of my incarceration, the average age of incoming convicts has gotten younger each year. When I first came to prison the system was full of baby-boomers and men old enough to be my father. Today, I find the vast majority of inmates to be in their late teens and early twenties — some even as young as fifteen. When discussing their crimes these youngsters understand that they violated the law, but they are completely mystified as to why the laws exist in the first place; they have no idea why what they did is wrong.

The bishops also cite “education that ignores fundamental values” as a contributing element to violent crime. What values? Whose values? All people of all cultures, walks of life, and environments have values, but those values are not necessarily compatible with Catholic morality. Therein lies the key. All throughout Responsibility the bishops promote values, but they never promote the teaching of Catholic morality. The two are not the same. Our bishops tried so very hard to give us a document that would inspire new and refreshing dialog on crime and criminal justice, and I believe in time this document will be a positive legacy of the NCCB, but the bishops should stop trying to avoid offending non-Catholics sensibilities with the talk of generic values and focus on promoting Catholic morality.

Another claim the bishops make about the causes and perpetuation of crime concerns firearms. “As bishops,” they write, “we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.” To learn what “sensible regulation” is we must read the footnote to this statement: “However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions (i.e., police officers, military use), handguns should be eliminated from our society. Furthermore, the widespread use of handguns and automatic weapons in connection with drug commerce reinforces our repeated call for effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society.”

Just like anyone, I would love to live in a world where cotton candy grows on trees and we can all eat rainbow stew everyday, but utopia will not come until Christ returns to create a new heaven and a new earth. In the meantime, I do not want to live in a society where only the police and military possess firearms. Have our bishops learned nothing from the upheaval of the last century? Hitler gained despotic control of Germany by eliminating guns from German society, leaving them solely in the hands of police and the military. The Soviet empire maintained a totalitarian state only because guns were taken from the people and left only in the hands of police and military. Seeing the possibility of totalitarian takeover, the framers of the Constitution gave us the second amendment to assure that all Americans would have the right to keep and bear arms.

Rather than advocate more gun control, thus making ourselves more vulnerable to totalitarianism, we should begin advocating the virtual elimination of gun control. The stated intent of gun control law is laudable: to stop violent crime. However, in reality it does not work. An old National Rifle Association slogan has had it right for decades: “If guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns.” Not only do gun control laws leave legal guns solely in the hands of police and military, but as long as guns can be manufactured anywhere m the world (legally or illegally), the criminal element will always have access to guns. (Indeed, I would advocate that even ex-convicts should be allowed the right to own firearms: those who have been rehabilitated will act responsibly with guns, and those who insist on remaining criminals will have them anyway.)

Statistics have proven beyond question that violent crime (e.g., murder, rape, robbery) decreases in areas where the citizenry have greater access to firearms and concealed weapons laws. When a criminal knows a citizen will not have a gun he will prey on the unarmed citizen. However, if the criminal is not sure whether the citizen is armed he thinks twice about making his attack. This is most certainly the consensus among my fellow prisoners.

No, gun control and the eventual elimination of guns is a very bad idea. Our bishops need to think through to its logical conclusion their policy on guns and its effects. Until mankind can overcome the effects of original sin, citizens must have the right to possess firearms to defend themselves against unjust aggressors.

The bishops tell us that crime is most often the option for the poor and vulnerable. “This principle of Catholic social teaching recognizes that every public policy must be assessed by how it will affect the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. Sometimes people who lack adequate resources from early in life (i.e., children — especially those who have been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused — the mentally ill, and people who have suffered discrimination) turn to lives of crime in desperation or out of anger or confusion. Unaddressed needs — including proper nutrition, shelter, health care, and protection from abuse and neglect — can be steppingstones on a path toward crime. Our role as church [sic] is to continually work to address those needs through pastoral care, charity, and advocacy.”

While fourteen years of experience motivates me to agree with our bishops that the social inequities they mention often lead to criminal behavior, I am mystified by one element of their proposed solution. Yes, the Church should address these needs through pastoral care and charity, but advocacy? Advocacy of what? More social programs that rob people of their personal spirit, self-reliance, and sense of self-respect? What the bishops should advocate and implement is the one thing they neglected to promote as the chief cause of modern crime — good moral behavior.

I am doing time with hundreds of men (1150 in this institution) who see nothing wrong with stealing, public masturbation, homosexual activity, murder for causes they deem justifiable (e.g., being disrespected or stolen from), rape, or adultery. These men represent a cross-section of every social and economic class in America. While the bishops’ stated causes may indeed be steppingstones to crime, they are not the root causes. The simple fact of the matter is, moral formation has been lacking in this country for thirty-five years. It is time to stop abetting criminal behavior by neglecting to teach objective morality.

In teaching the catechism evangelistically to thousands of prisoners and having seen hundreds of conversions, it is the moral formation that takes place during the catechumenate that transforms criminals into productive members of society. These men have grown up in a morally relativistic society that preaches non-judgmental values while living under laws based on a very judgmental moral code. This is confusing to them. When Catholic moral teaching is presented to them uncompromisingly, bluntly, assertively, and authoritatively, these men eagerly embrace the Roman Catholic faith. They desire genuine authority. They find it refreshing to be taught there are absolute rights and wrongs. They actually get excited during their formation.

Does this work? You decide. Alabama’s recidivism rates reflect national rates — 70% to 80% recidivism, depending upon which studies are cited. In thirteen years of apostolate from seven different Alabama institutions, of the scores of converts who have returned to the streets our recidivism rate is a mere 1.6%. Some of our converts are happily married to good Catholic women and rearing families.

Some are teaching catechism in their parishes. One of our converts operates a national prison apostolate called Prisoners of the Perfect Prisoner National Network. At least two are hoping to find bishops who will let them study for the priesthood.

If the bishops truly wish to address crime they need to stop preaching generic values and start preaching the totality of Catholic morality with Pauline zeal, Petrine authority, and apocalyptic bluntness. This will make them unpopular with the elites, but they will single-handedly convert the masses with the aid of the Holy Spirit. This would require immense courage and resolve, but I am confident our bishops are capable men who are made more capable via the sacramental seals of Confirmation and Holy Orders.

The bishops declare that “society seems to prefer punishment to rehabilitation, and retribution to restoration, thereby indicating a failure to recognize prisoners as human beings.” This statement could not be more correct. We convicts are viewed by the general public as animals, and politicians view us as political opportunities. In either case we are not viewed as humans, and this is true because we exist under the pall of a culture of death. After all, how can a society that casually murders a million babies a year possibly view the lowest social outcasts as human?

The bishops go on to observe conditions that demonstrate this reality. Noting that St. Thomas Aquinas taught punishment for its own sake is morally unacceptable, the bishops speak of “supermax” prisons that virtually cut prisoners off from the outside world, correctional systems that have become human warehouses, mandatory minimum sentences that are often excessive for the offense, the elimination of parole boards, the building of prisons in isolated rural areas that essentially cut prisoners off from their families, and a proliferation of the use of the death penalty. The bishops condemn these current trends, and they are right to do so. This deserves some comment.

So called “supermax” prisons and prisons in isolated rural areas share similar difficulties. Supermax prisons are designed to deprive inmates of all contact with the outside world, which serves only to torment the mind of the offender. He quickly becomes “institutionalized,” which results in making him incapable of functioning in society when he is eventually released. Likewise, prisons constructed in isolated rural areas are logistically placed so that they do essentially the same thing to inmates (although not as severely), as visits from family and friends become too much of a hardship to allow those much needed visits.

Believe it or not, this is actually the intent of bureaucrats who devise such places. For example, when Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Ron Jones slashed opportunities for families to visit inmates from four monthly visits equaling twenty hours a month to two visits equaling six hours a month, he stated that the move was made so families would not have to “be bothered” to fulfill a sense of obligation, and that inmates did not deserve visits anyway. Jones foolishly publicized his intentions (causing such public outcry that it eventually led to his dismissal), but other prison system chiefs feel the same way. This clearly demonstrates the sadistic cruelty of which some public servants are capable.

Mandatory minimum sentences, which are often severe (there are actually people doing life without parole in Alabama for shoplifting or bouncing a check), are both counter productive and costly. Statistically, prisoners who serve less than five years in a medium or maximum institution are prime candidates to re-offend. However, prisoners who remain incarcerated six years or more are not only likely to re-offend but to do so violently, even if they have no prior history of violence. Prisoners who serve five years, though, have the best chance of becoming and remaining productive in society. Personal experience bears this out.

During the first five years of incarceration is when a man becomes introspective. If he is inclined to make any personal changes at all he will do so during this period. Freeing him prior to the five-year mark takes him out of this crucial introspection.

Once a man has served six years or more he begins to get bitter. He daily fights frustration, bitterness, and regression from the positive changes he made during the introspective period. Gradually he learns to hate. I recall once standing in the serving line of the cafeteria behind a man who had served roughly fifteen years. He looked at everything around him — substandard quality food, chaotic behavior on the part of some inmates, filthy conditions, guards harassing inmates who were trying to eat — and said to no one in particular, “Someday somebody’s gonna pay for this.” He had been locked away and mistreated so long that he had learned to hate everyone and everything. He completed his twenty-year sentence, then soon after committed a murder and suicide. Somebody certainly paid.

Politicians will get votes and the feelings will be assuaged by long-term sentences, but such treatment of prisoners is insane. If you put a dog in a pen and torment him daily over a long period of time, that dog will attack anyone and everyone when he finally gets free of his pen. People react in kind. As the bishops so rightly pointed out, most prisoners will return to society. Does anyone really want to live near a man who has been incarcerated for a long period of time? Statistically, unless there is reform, every reader of this essay will have no choice but to live near someone like this at least once in his or her lifetime. Long sentences take away hope, and hope is all a man has to hold onto when he lacks faith.

The bishops condemn the growing use of capital punishment. So do I. There is not a single instance in developed civilized countries where the death penalty can serve any purpose whatsoever, except to satisfy social vengeance. Furthermore, as long as the culture of death continues to reign supreme, capital punishment serves to reinforce the cheapness of life.

There is still yet another reason to abolish the death penalty, and a glowing testimony lives in the Alabama prison system. When the death penalty is used, the opportunity for repentance and conversion is taken away.

Many will rebut that a condemned man has plenty of time on death row to make his peace with God, but such a person arrogantly takes God’s place by deciding when and how grace is dispensed for the condemned man.

In 1970, Carl J. Monroe was convicted of a brutal murder, in which he was accused of beating the victim to death with his fists in a drunken rage. In 1972, just months before his scheduled execution in the electric chair, the U.S. Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional as it existed at that time. Consequently, Monroe’s sentence was commuted to life, and he went on to serve his time in four of Alabama’s major institutions.

Over the next twenty-five years, Carl became a legend in the penal system. He was a notorious cold-blooded killer, and he was known to be the number one provider of all vices and contraband prisoners could conceivably want.

While on death row Carl was functionally illiterate. Despite his chronic immoral activities he at least accepted the actual graces to get an education. Before Congress disqualified us for Pell Grants, Monroe was able to move from functional illiteracy to a bachelor’s degree.

A deputy warden, who was also a convert to Catholicism before he died, once told me that education leads to faith and faith leads to education. This truth was demonstrated in 1993, when Carl Monroe began studying the catechism with me. In 1994, Carl was received into the Church, and I was proud to stand next to him as his godfather.

Carl Monroe’s commitment is real. He broke with all his old vices and deepened his studies zealously. He not only became a competent catechist, but some would consider Carl an expert in Church history. Today, Carl is spending his thirty-first year in prison evangelizing souls and giving them the gift of the beautiful truths of Catholicism. Hundreds of souls would be lost to Christ and the Church had Carl been executed in 1972. We must abolish the death penalty.

The bishops admit that “[e]ven with new visions, ideas and strategies, we bishops have modest expectations about how well they will work without a moral revolution in our society.” Our bishops expect little because they will commit themselves to little more than talk. Talk is cheap. Action is what is needed. I agree that a moral revolution must take place, but our bishops apparently fail to realize that if we are to witness a moral revolution it will come through their august body, with the aid of the Holy Spirit.

The late Vince Lombardi, one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, took over the losing Green Bay Packers and made them winners. His first day meeting with the team Lombardi said, “Men, we’ve got to get back to basics.” Then picking up a football he continued, “This . . . this is a football.”

We, too, must get back to the basics. We can talk about problems and solutions until the end of time, but nothing will change until the Church in America gets back to doing its job of evangelizing and teaching the uncompromised truths of Catholic morality. Ancient Rome was in a deeper moral abyss than America is today, yet the Church defeated Rome more thoroughly than any army ever could have through preaching, teaching, and with a commitment that was unto death. Peter, Paul, Clement, and Ignatius were most unpopular, but unpopularity did not concern them. They cared only for souls. Even though they lost their lives, they gained both a martyr’s crown and a complete victory over a morally corrupt Rome.

We are now locked into a spiritual war as immense as the one we faced in Rome two millennia ago. Our bishops are faced with a choice: engage the enemy or sleep with him.

They must reject federal funding and the strings attached to them, and stop worrying about offending interests whose ideals are not compatible with Catholicism. To engage the enemy they must shift the emphasis from social justice to evangelization. Until the bishops do this, the war will be lost by default.

The bishops need new ideas that will provide avenues for evangelization. Therefore, allow me to present the following suggestions as they relate to criminal justice.

1. The NCCB should establish an office for prison evangelization, staffed only by Catholic evangelists with a strong background in successful prison apostolate. This office would coordinate all apostolic activities in federal prisons, and serve as both model and adviser to diocesan offices established to mirror the national office. This ensures continuity and the duplication of success.

2. A separate office should be established to minister to the needs of crime victims. The office should establish programs on the federal level that blend treatment with evangelization, then give grants to dioceses that establish similar programs on the state level.

3. An NCCB office should be established to set up a network of evangelistic youth apostolates across the country, drawing its staff from the growing number of lay evangelists in America. The best way to fight crime is to evangelize them before they become criminals.

4. The Holy Father has recently reminded us of our Catholic responsibility to evangelize. The bishops should promote and support lay initiatives that evangelize all people — the unchurched, lapsed Catholics, and those of other faiths.

5. The bishops must reform the religious education being given in Catholic colleges, schools, CCD, and R.C.I.A. The emphasis must be on genuine Catholic morality and the main truths and duties of the Church and her faithful. Non-Catholic teachers and professors should be replaced with Catholics, and Catholic teachers living in bad marriages should be dismissed.

6. The bishops should adopt a resolution calling for all Catholic pulpits to focus preaching on Catholic morality, the life of the Catholic family, and chaste married love. Then each bishop should enforce the resolution in his diocese.

7. The bishops should develop offender treatment programs that comport with Catholic teaching for both state and federal prisons. The nation’s prison systems are more open to Church involvement than ever before, for two very good reasons. First, corrections officials recognize that current secular federally funded programs, which replace moral absolutes with vague values, do not have any lasting effects. Second, corrections budgets are strained to the limit, and any programs that draw from community involvement equate to free programs taxpayers do not have to finance. Therefore, all treatment programs the bishops could devise (i.e., sex-offenders, substance abuse, anger management, etc.) would be welcome. It would be necessary, though, for these programs to meet three criteria: (1) maintain independence from state interference; (2) be made strictly voluntary for participation, without coercion; and (3) be assertively but discreetly evangelistic.

8. The NCCB should establish half-way houses to provide a means of gradual reintegration into society and vocational training with job placement services. Ex-offenders today virtually require vocational training. If set up along the lines of early Salesian efforts, these vocational training programs would be self-funding.

Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration is a fascinating document that will inspire committed Catholics for years to come. We should hope and pray, though, that our bishops refine it through future documents that focus more on reality than on failed and disproven theories.  

Mr. Russell L. Ford became a Southern Baptist while in high school in 1973. He studied in a seminary but theological inconsistencies let him into agnosticism. This led to a criminal life-style which landed him in prison in 1987. There a fellow convict introduced him to Catholicism. He was baptized in 1989 and since then he has taught catechism to thousands via prison classes and one-on-one discussions. In 1992 he co-founded First Century Christian Ministries which reaches prisoners across the nation. Mr. Ford is in the fourteenth year of his incarceration. 

 

 

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